The Italian Government today distanced itself from scathing remarks about the relief operation in Haiti by Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's civil protection department, who said that the US-led efforts were a "pathetic" failure.
A clearly embarrassed Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister who is in America for talks with Hillary Clinton, said that Mr Bertolaso had not gone to Haiti as "world co-ordinator" of aid and had not been speaking in an official capacity.
“Bertolaso ... has attacked American and international organisations head on. The Italian government does not share these statements,” Mr Frattini said.
Mr Frattini said he agreed that "the level of co-ordination is inadequate, we said so from the start". But although Mr Bertolaso had "extraordinary expertise", he was mistaken in blaming the lack of co-ordination on the United States, for which Italy had "the maximum appreciation", Mr Frattini told Corriere della Sera.
Mr Bertolaso is close to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, who has repeatedly praised him for his role in overseeing rescue efforts after the earthquake last April at L'Aquila in Abruzzo, which killed 294 people and left 40,000 homeless. The Premier sent Mr Bertolaso to Haiti on Friday to offer his expertise.
After two days of observations Mr Bertolaso told a RAI television interviewer that the relief effort showed that the international community was unable to mount an adequate disaster response and called for the appointment of a civilian international humanitarian co-ordinator.
He said the aid organisations, including United Nations bodies, wrongly thought Haiti was "another humanitarian catastrophe like Cambodia or Rwanda. They thought they could bring something to eat and drink and the problem would be resolved.".
He added that the US military effort was "inefficient" and that troops were not trained to run an aid or disaster relief operation. "No-one is giving orders," he said.
Asked by Lucia Annunziata, the RAI interviewer, if the rescue effort had been "a flop", Mr Bertolaso — who holds Cabinet rank — said that the American decision to send large quantities of troops, cargo planes and aid was commendable. "However, when confronted by a situation of chaos, they tend to confuse military intervention with what should be an emergency operation, which cannot be entrusted to the armed forces. We are missing a leader, a co-ordination capacity that goes beyond military discipline."
Mr Bertolaso compared the US response to Haiti to its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. "It's a truly powerful show of force, but it's completely out of touch with reality. They don't have close rapport with the territory and they certainly don't have a rapport with international organisations and aid groups," he said.
He accused many of the organisations involved in the Haiti operation of "putting on a vanity show for the television cameras instead of rolling up their sleeves", singling out Bill Clinton, the former US President, who had made a show of helping with water supplies "but went back after a day".
He hoped it would be "the last time the world acts in this way ... Unfortunately there's this need to make a bella figura in front of the television cameras rather than focusing on what's underneath the debris,'' Mr Bertolaso said. He praised the people of Haiti for displaying "dignity, patience and calm".
The US has not responded to the Italian diplomatic scuffle, which blew up as foreign ministers from numerous countries prepared to join Mrs Clinton, the US Secretary of State, for six hours of private talks in Montreal on how to reconstruct Haiti.
With hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims likely to be living off foreign aid for years in a country that was already dysfunctional and deeply poor before the tremor, diplomats have raised the possibility of a kind of Marshall Plan, along the same lines as the US-funded reconstruction of Europe after the second world war.
More than 235,000 people have fled the ravaged streets of Port-au-Prince to seek food and shelter in makeshift camps in rural areas. The exodus is gaining pace, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, cardboard and canvas cities around the capital itself may now hold as many as 800,000 homeless people.
The rescue phase of the relief work has now ended, after French rescuers abandoned their search through rubble where noises of life were reported and radar appeared to confirm movement. Hopes were raised of a bringing out a final survivor, an extraordinary 13 days after the quake, but after hours of digging the rescuers admitted defeat.
“We came across a body full of worms which perhaps accounts for the movement that was detected,” said Samuel Bernes, the head of the French rescue team.
Marie-Lawrence Jocelyn Lassegue, the communications minister, said that the death toll was expected to reach 150,000 today, with up to an extra 200,000 more bodies still buried.
Meanwhile European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to send 300 EU police to Haiti to help to keep order, but Britain criticised the plan and refused to join in, saying that America was doing all that was needed.
Douglas Alexander, the UK Development Secretary, defended the US effort in Haiti, telling the BBC: "I think what the people of Haiti need at the moment is not criticism on the airwaves but co-ordination on the ground."
US forces had prevented the situation from "descending into lawlessness", which would have made the international effort "more difficult, not more easy".
Roberto Dormino, an Italian UN aid official in Haiti, said Mr Bertolaso had not understood that "Haiti is not L'Aquila". He said: "The government does not exist and there is nothing to requisition, not a single lorry, not a car, not even a taxi. Bertolaso cannot throw mud at us like this, many in the UN mission have died, we who are left are doing what we can."
Mr Bertolaso, 59, son of a former head of the Italian air force, studied tropical medicine in Rome and Liverpool, and joined the Italian government's development aid operations.
He was made head of the civil protection department in 1996, supervising not only the 2009 rescue effort in Abruzzo after the earthquake which killed 300 people, but also logistical arrangements for the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome and the clearing of piles of refuse from the streets of Naples during the rubbish crisis in the Campania region.
Click to view image: 'Quake Aid'
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